SNAP Rules Revised, Many Snacks And Prepared Foods Removed From ‘Staples’ List

This week the Department of Agriculture announced new rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Annie Gasparro reports in the Wall Street Journal.

“In a rare tuneup to the $74 billion food-stamp program, U.S. regulators deemed potato chips and ice cream too unhealthy to count as staple foods,” Gasparro writes. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture made other changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program this week that fell short of recommendations from many public-health advocates.”

Potato chips and ice cream had previously been included in the list of foods acceptable for purchase through SNAP because their primary ingredients — potatoes and milk — are considered staples by the Department of Agriculture.

The new SNAP rules also prohibit stores that earn half of their sales from prepared meals or meals that are heated on site, such as microwavable pizzas or burritos, from accepting SNAP payments. Public-health advocates had wanted the threshold to be a mere 15 percent of sales, according to Gasparro.

In a second blow to public-health advocates, grape juice and foods with “multiple ingredients,” like canned soups and frozen pizzas, also remained on the list, Gasparro notes.

“I’m disappointed that the rules don’t go as far as what was proposed early this year,” Danielle Nierenberg, president of the nutrition advocacy group Food Tank, told Gasparro. “USDA has missed an opportunity to increase the availability of and access to healthier foods for low-income Americans.”

Many public health and nutrition advocates saw keeping so many prepackaged foods on the SNAP staples list as a win for companies like Campbell’s and General Mills.

Others saw the new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rules as a fair compromise between the interests of public health and the prepackaged food industry.

“These are very implementable changes that are long overdue…. This is a way of nudging access (to healthy food) in the right direction,” Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told The Chicago Tribune‘s Greg Trotter.

In addition to removing some foods deemed unhealthy from the list and prohibiting stores from selling primarily prepackaged foods, the new SNAP rules also require stores to carry a greater diversity of staple foods.

“Currently, retailers are required to carry three varieties in each of the four staple food categories: dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables,” Trotter reports. “Under the final rule, they’ll have to stock at least seven. And retailers will have to stock three of each variety — instead of six as initially proposed.”

As is often the case, multiple sides felt their concerns were not addressed by the new rules. Just as public-health advocates were disappointed by the compromise, so where many small retailers such as convenience stores.

“We are encouraged by what appears to be significant progress in the final rule, although we remain concerned that (the USDA Food and Nutrition Service) is still trying to penalize retailers for sales of items to non-SNAP customers,”Anna Ready, director of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said in a statement quoted by Trotter. “We are going through the rule in detail to determine how it will impact convenience stores and the SNAP customers they serve.”

It would be incredibly difficult for the Department of Agricultural to try to create and implement a system that could distinguish between the purchases of SNAP customers and non-SNAP customers. There would be too many ways to work around that.

While the new rules may have failed to satisfy public-health advocates, small retailers and those accustomed to being able to sneak a few treats like ice cream onto their shopping lists will likely feel the changes the most.

[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]